Sunday, August 31, 2014

Living the Faith -- A Sermon for Pentecost 12A

Romans 12:9-21

Sometimes you come across a passage of Scripture that could take several months of sermons to explore.  This is true of today’s reading.  With sentences coming at us in rapid-fire fashion, it demands a great degree of reflection.  Since I’m not planning an extended series at this moment, I will try to refrain from dwelling too long in every nook and cranny of Paul’s message.  

Each statement is an imperative sentence that speaks to what it means to live the Christian life.  It’s fitting that this reading comes on Labor Day Weekend, because it will take a lot of work to fulfill Paul’s expectations.  

The key to this passage is the call to “let love be genuine” (vs. 9).  Everything that follows is an expression of genuine love.  It’s not romantic love.  It’s not just friendship.  It’s Agape love.  When it comes to defining love, I’ve been turning to theologian Tom Oord for help.  His basic definition goes like this:
To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to God and others, to promote overall well-being. [The Nature of Love: A Theology p. 17].
When it comes to the agape form of love, he defines it as “acting intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote overall well-being in response to that which produces ill-being.”  This means, do what is good for the other, “in spite of evil previously inflicted” (p. 56).   This is the kind of love that Jesus had in mind when he spoke of loving our enemies and doing good to those who hate us (Luke 6:27).

Before we go too far with this passage, we need to go back to the beginning of Romans 12, where Paul calls us to present our bodies to God as a living sacrifice.  This is truly spiritual worship that involves giving our lives completely to God.  This is what it means to call Jesus Lord.  When we do this, we’re “transformed by the renewing of [our] minds, so that [we] may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2).

This call to let love be genuine begins here in the community of faith.  Paul challenges us to “love one another with mutual affection” and “outdo one another in showing honor” (vs. 19).  This can take place in moments of joy, like last Sunday, when we shared in Alex’s ordination.  What a blessing it was for all of us to lay hands on her and commission her in the name of Jesus for ministry. 

It also takes place when we weep with those who weep.  This can happen in a variety of ways – some of which involve service activities on behalf of others.  It can involve sitting with and praying with someone who has lost a loved one in death, or standing with someone facing a debilitating illness or caring for someone with an illness.  At some point in our lives all of us will need a shoulder to cry on or an arm to rest on.

  Genuine love involves contributing to the needs of the saints and showing hospitality to the stranger.  That is, we’re called to love those within the community of faith and those outside our community – whether they are strangers or even enemies.

  I’ve been reading this book called The New Parish.  The three authors of the book talk about how the church can inhabit the neighborhood. By becoming rooted in the community, the church can become a “faithful presence.”  We often hear people say that we can’t save the whole world, and that is true.  But, we can make a difference, one neighborhood at a time, if we’re willing to be this faithful presence in the neighborhoods in which we live and work and worship.

One of the reasons why Rippling Hope has been so successful in Detroit is that Carl, Robin, Karen, and Patty have become part of the community.  So, when mission teams arrive to work in Detroit, there is a built-in sense of trust – not in the mission team, but in Rippling Hope.  
Paul isn’t sentimental.  He doesn’t have romantic notions about the world.  He’s a realist, so when he calls for us to live peaceably with each other, he knows this won’t be easy.  He’s not asking us to go along to get along.  He doesn’t expect us to ignore the injustice existing around us.  But he does expect us to engage the communities in which live, work, play, and worship with humility and wisdom.  “Do not claim to be wiser than you are,” Paul writes.  Instead, listen to the community and then decide how you’re supposed to act.  This is what we learned during our MCC one-on-one training.  The listening team that did the one-on-ones during our MCC listening campaign was supposed to ask a few questions and then listen for what was said.

This all leads us to the question of judgment and vengeance.  Paul encourages us to leave such things to God.  This is an important word for the church, since surveys tell us that younger generations are abandoning or ignoring the church because they believe that Christians are judgmental, arrogant, and hypocritical.  We may not think that these words describe us, but there’s enough evidence that backs up some of their complaints that we should pay attention to the critique!   Yes, too often the church hasn’t put forward its best face.

Maybe you’re thinking, what I’m thinking – this love stuff isn’t easy.  It’s easy to say “I love you.”  It’s a whole different ball game when it comes to actually loving people, especially if they’re strangers and even enemies.  It will take great patience, wisdom, and openness to the other, if we’re going to let love be genuine.  Most of all, it will occur as we surrender our lives to God, so that we might be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

Genuine love, it would seem, means walking, as best we can, in the shoes of another.  While we don’t know all the details about the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the shooting has become a symbol for many about what it means to be black in America.  As Leonard Pitts wrote in a column published Friday in the Free Press, it doesn’t matter whether he was an angel or not, too many African American men tell stories of dangerous encounters with police to ignore the possibility that race is still a problem in America.  Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reminded that I’ve never had to have “the conversation” with Brett about how to deal with police.  That’s because it’s unlikely that he’ll get stopped just because he “looks suspicious.”  But that’s a conversation most black families have.  Whether or not you are right, just do what the police say so you can come home in one piece.

   Paul calls on us to be transformed and then let love be genuine.  We do this, he says, ultimately, by overcoming evil with good: “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink” (vs. 20).  If you do this, Paul says you will “heap burning coals on their heads,” in other words, you will appeal to their conscience, and you might end up turning a potential enemy into a friend.  I’m not sure that Brett and I need to experience “burning coals,” but I think that’s the reason why I, and a guest, were invited by the Islamic Society of North America to attend an interfaith dinner during their convention.  But, by reaching out to those outside their community, they’re fulfilling what Paul is talking about here.

Each week, when we gather at the Lord’s Table, we are reminded of the nature of genuine love.  As we gather at this meal of remembrance, we experience a renewing of God’s presence in our lives, so that we might love the God who invites us to the Table, and love one another, as we gather together for the meal.  As Sharon Watkins writes in her new book, Whole: A Call to Unity in Our Fragmented World,  a book we will be studying together this fall:  “We are reminded that, just as Jesus introduced us to a God of love, now we have the joy of living in that love, of sharing it with people around us, and introducing them to God as well” [Whole: A Call to Unity in Our Fragmented World, p. 18].  Amen!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
August 31, 2014
Pentecost 12A

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